This notebook is being written from the American Airlines Admiral’s Club lounge in Mexico City. I am in here for the next nine hours because the flight home was cancelled, apparently because of huge rain storms in Dallas. F1 might have got wet in Austin a week ago, but it seems that the weather was even worse after we left with the paddock at COTA flooding…
The travelling is the underside of the glamorous F1 existence. It is a tough schedule, even when things go right, and inevitably there are times when things go wrong. A load of F1 people are in the same boat and we are all being sent in different directions, some to Miami, some to Charlotte, some to Chicago, others to Phoenix. None of these work for me, which means that I am sitting here and waiting for an Air France flight to Paris tonight. Felipe Nasr, en route to Brasilia, is asleep in the corner with a black cotton bag over his head (a bit weird to look at, but very effective is you want to keep out the light). John Booth of Manor is tapping away on a computer behind me. Alex Rossi’s dad is nearby and I’m with Rachel Brookes of the Sky F1 team, wondering if it is a good moment to start on the wine. It is very tempting. If this post becomes less coherent as it goes on, you will know why… Still, some of the folk here are on espresso martinis, so it could get pretty ugly. Vodka, Kahlúa, sugar syrup and an espresso is not a combination I have considered before, but maybe when I have finished this post, I’ll give it a try.
The Mexican GP was a great event, a real boost of positive energy at this point of the season when everyone is beginning to get weary. Five weeks ago we were in Singapore and we have since done races in Japan, Russia, Austin and Mexico, with travel backwards and forwards to home between. The enthusiasm and passion of the fans was really special. It was such a pleasure to go to a circuit and see tens of thousands of people who absolutely love Formula 1, and everything it stands for. It was a brilliant antidote to the mealy-mouthed politicking and back-stabbing in the F1 Paddock. It was telling that this was the best new venue we have had for years. We go to new places on a fairly regular basis, but there is rarely much excitement. People are curious, but they don’t really get what F1 is all about. There is no learning curve needed in Mexico. The fans know about the sport today, but they know also that their race track is something special, one of the great motor racing temples.
The only kind of place where I think we will see that again is in Argentina, but the good news is that it seems that an Argentine Grand Prix is not impossible. The Autódromo Juan y Oscar Gálvez was first used by Formula 1 in the early 1950s, thanks to the support of President Juan Perón and it remained in F1 until 1960, then reappeared from 1972 until 1982 and then was revived again in 1995 for four events. I went to these and they were real fun. Buenos Aires is a great town, although I am told that the race died out because there were so many bribes that had to be paid that it became impossible for the promoter to continue. Of course, these days, all brown envelopes are banned in F1, as those nice sharks at CVC Capital Partners want to be seen to be dressed in white robes that glow just a little.
It has to be said that in F1 circles the description above is one of the nicer things that anyone will say about the private equity firm. The fact that the F1 business is now rumoured to have up to $5 billion in debt and CVC wants $8.5 billion to hand over control gives one an idea of the levels of greed involved. I heard last weekend that even Bernie is now sick of their greed. Wow!
Anyway, the city of Buenos Aires wants an F1 race again and the Mayor Mauricio Macri has been talking to Bernie for a couple of years about a deal. Raising the money required has not been easy, but Macri is now a candidate in the presidential elections and it looks like he might get elected and if that happens then money will be available to revamp the autodromo. I hope that happens. Having said that, the TV viewing figures for the races that get beamed into Europe at prime time have not been good. I saw the German TV figures for the Mexican race and it was rather shocking. Because there is so much competition at that time of night in Europe, the RTL show ranked 10th in Germany, behind crime shows, talks shows and so on. The actual viewing figure was about a million below normal. Clearly, some more thought is required with scheduling.
The big media event in recent days has been the launch of the 24th James Bond movie Spectre, which has been breaking box office records around the world. Skyfall, the last Bond movie, made $1.1 billion at the box office around the world and Spectre is expected to do even better. Daniel Craig and other cast members were in Mexico over the weekend on the press tour for the movie and there were rumours that he turned up at the Autodromo, but I didn’t see him and have yet to have that confirmed. James Bond was much-discussed in Mexico, however, because of rumours that Force India is in the process of being taken over by the distilling firm Diageo. Diageo owns Smirnoff and Johnnie Walker and is the official whisky of F1. Smirnoff sponsors Force India and Johnnie Walker McLaren. The latter relationship is rumoured to be coming to an end and the word is that Diageo is going to put all of its money into Force India, but they don’t want to be associated with the team name, not surprising when one considers that they bought Vijay Mallya’s United Spirits Ltd company (USL) and that deal has been a complete pain ever since. Diageo allowed Mallya to stay on as chairman of USL but then they say they found some strange dealings in the company records and asked him to go. Vijay refused. However, Diageo also agreed to guarantee a loan made to Mallya’s company Watson (the parent on the F1 team). He never repaid the loan and so the bank involved – Standard Chartered – asked for the cash and so Diageo paid. This means that Mallya owes Diageo $130 million, which he is unlikely to be able to pay. Thus, it seems that Diageo might be looking to take shares in the F1 team instead, on the basis that it can advertise its products and sell the shares later. A sensible deal. Red Bull shows how ownership works for sponsors. Of course, Diageo would prefer not to have Johnnie Walker Racing and so is looking for an alternative name and it seems to have spotted that Aston Martin wants to be in F1 but cannot afford it. Aston Martin is associated with James Bond, so is Smirnoff vodka (shaken not stirred). Both brands get great publicity (and increased sales) from the link to Bond. So don’t be surprised to see Force India become Aston Martin F1 at some point in the future, with funding coming from Diageo. It is a win-win situation for all concerned, giving Mallya a dignified exit from the sport, as he cannot really afford to pay for it himself, and it helps Aston to sell more cars and Diageo to sell more drink.
If you stop and think about it, Sergio Perez and Nico Hulkenberg are more Bond villains than Bond, so perhaps we could see Jenson Button, the most Bond-like of the current F1 field, moving to Force India in 2017 from an Indian summer of his career…
There are changes going on elsewhere in F1 teams, the word being that Aabar Investments, a diversified investment company, owned by the the International Petroleum Investment Company, a sovereign wealth fund belonging to the government of Abu Dhabi, got rid of its shareholding in Scuderia Toro Rosso a while ago. There was a time when it looked like Aabar might take over the team, but that did not happen. However the team’s sponsors: the Spanish oil company CEPSA and the Canadian chemical firm Nova, are both Aabar-owned companies.It is not clear whether or not the shares in Toro Rosso remain with Red Bull, or whether they have been sold elsewhere.
There are question marks at the moment about engine supply for the two Red Bull teams in 2016. I hear that Red Bull will end up back with Renault, while Toro Rosso will switch to Ferrari. It is too late for any Honda deal and Bernie Ecclestone’s “client engine” is for 2017 and is not going to work because it will probably be vetoed by Ferrari. The FIA is supposed to be supporting the client engine, but it makes no sense at all, as this would undermine the FIA’s position because it wants to keep the current hybrids. Jean Todt’s support of the client engine is not at all red-blooded and it is fairly clear that he does not want them, even if he is snuggling up to Bernie Ecclestone on the matter.
The question of technology in F1 is rather confused at the moment. It makes no sense for the sport to give up on its brilliant ground-breaking hybrids and switch to vanilla V8s. If logic was being used then F1 would keep pushing to develop its current engines, while also banning wind tunnels and promoting more CFD development.
F1 technologies are useful to industry but they could be better. Having said that these things take time. However, Gordon Murray’s iStream technology, which is based on F1 experience, is beginning to make an impact in the car world with both TVR and Yamaha building sports cars using the Murray techniques, which create vehicles by bending, cutting and welding steel tubes and then bonding lightweight panels of honeycomb with composite skins. The system is cheaper, lighter, stronger, more ecological and simpler than traditional techniques, which means that the barriers to entry into the car business come down thanks to cost-effective manufacturing.
Right, that’s it for now. I have to go back into Mexico to find my luggage and then come back to the lounge for six more hours of waiting…
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